“We knew our game plan”: CanMNT rescues valuable road point in 1-1 draw versus USMNT

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team continued their interesting start to the Octagonal, the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers, by picking up a 1-1 draw versus the US on Sunday night, their 2nd such result in 2 games. Here’s what stood out from that one. 

All things considered, it was a valuable point. 

Heading into their clash with the United States on Sunday, no one quite knew what to expect from Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team in that game, as they looked to pick up their first win of the ‘Octagonal’, the final round of World Cup qualifiers. 

And although they still remain without that first win, they picked up a massive draw against the US in Nashville, surprising the 40 000+ pro-American crowd with a resilient performance after a disappointing opening day draw at home versus Honduras. 

Having gone down 1-0 to a Brendan Aaronson goal in the 55th minute, Canada managed to stay alive and find an equalizer less than 10 minutes later, allowing them to cruise to a 1-1 draw. 

Plus, had their decision-making in the final third been just a bit better, they even had a few great chances to grab a win late on in this game, coming close on a few occasions, which would’ve only been the cherry on top of an already good night. 

But in an Octo stage where the formula for qualification to the World Cup is winning your home games and stealing as many points as you can when you’re away from home, that they did the second half of that formula in this game was positive, helping give them a good feeling after the disappointment of that opener versus Honduras. 

“I asked for a lot of heart in this game,” Canadian head coach, John Herdman, said of his team’s play after the game. “I asked each man to bring a level of intensity, to show that they’re brothers, that we’re committed to each other, and I thought they did that tonight.”

“The effort was outstanding,” US head coach Gregg Berhalter added on his end. “But the performance wasn’t up to what we expect.”

So although they now need to follow up this good US result with a win in their last game of this September window, a home game versus El Salvador on Wednesday, this is a big point for this Canadian team. 

Considering that they have so much more to give as a team, yet sit in one of the vaunted top 3 spots in the Octo through 2 matchdays thanks to some favourable results elsewhere is huge, as they’ve got so much more to come now, too. 

Make no mistake, though, this has now ramped up the intensity level of that aforementioned El Salvador clash, which comes this week in Toronto. If Canada can win that, they’ll be sitting nicely heading into the October window, but if they draw or lose, it’ll erase the progress of this US game. 

And speaking of this US game, however, it’s important that they look back and take what they showed in this one, especially in that 2nd half, and take it into Wednesday. 

So with all of that in mind, here’s what stood out in this game for Canada. 

A tense first half: 

While the game finished with quite the fireworks, it’s worth noting that to begin the match, neither team seemed particularly interested in blowing the game open and making things happen, making for a cagey first half.

And it made sense for both teams to do that. 

For the US, they saw glimpses of what could happen when the likes of Alphonso Davies and Richie Laryea got moving in transition, so they did their best to avoid letting that happen, making sure to close down the wide channels whenever they lost the ball. 

As for Canada, they seemed intent on closing down the US’s midfield and just letting them go down the flanks, confident that they could take care of any sort of service into the box from the Americans, knowing that they like to do their best work in the middle of the park. 

Because of that, it was a first-half low on quality chances, and high on physical duels and close calls. 

Despite that, though, there were a few close calls for either team. 

Even with the US’s best attempts to kill their transition game, Cyle Larin did fashion a pair of nice chances on the break, first testing the US’s Matt Turner in goal with a decent right-footed attempt, before forcing a nice save out of Turner a few minutes later with a nice left-footed effort after a Davies cross. 

Looking back, one does wonder if Larin could’ve put some more intent behind his first shot, and if Davies could’ve maybe cut in and shoot the ball instead of cutting it to Larin, as he managed to snake his way into a good position in the box, but instead, Canada were left wanting after both chances.

At the other end, the US saw a nice Antonee Robinson shot from outside of the box sneak past Milan Borjan in the Canadian goal, before Jordan Siebatcheu slashed a good shot just wide himself not long after. 

They also then got the best chance of the half, as Brendan Aarosen found Christian Pulisic with a lovely low ball into the box, but the US’s captain just got under his first-timed effort, bouncing it onto the post and out. 

But despite those decent looks from both teams, the rest of the first half was mostly one where either side seemed content to sit in a more cautious position, trying to avoid being broken through by their opponents’ talent. 

Heading into halftime, it felt like it was a game that was on the cusp of breaking into a fascinating encounter, but both teams were yet to find the push required to do so, making one wonder if it’d come in the 2nd stanza. 

Symphony of mistakes lead to US opener: 

So naturally, with the game being as cagey as it was, it almost was fitting that the eventual breakthrough would come off of some tough individual errors from Canada, who gifted the US a glorious opportunity, one that they made no mistake in finishing. 

And for Canada, it was a tough blow to stomach. Mistakes happen, but the matter in which they shot themselves in the foot on the goal was almost impressive, as they undid over 50 minutes of good work with one bad sequence. 

It all started out so innocently, as Davies first kicked off the sequence with a sloppy throw in to his left centre back, Scott Kennedy, forcing the defender to rush his decision. 

From there, though, Kennedy then made the wrong decision, as he tried to bring down the ball and dribble into the middle, when he probably should’ve looked for an easy pass or just booted the ball long, and he’d be tackled as a result, sending the US off on a counterattack. 

With that space left open after that, the US then masterfully worked their magic, as Antonee Robinson made a great run in behind, before finding Brendan Aaronson with a lovely low cross, one that Aaronson probably could’ve scored in his sleep, as he’d managed to sneak behind the Canadian defenders for an easy tap-in. 

For the US, it appeared to give them a breakthrough that they’d need to blow the game wide open and pick up a few more goals, while for Canada, it left them to chase a game that they probably didn’t want to chase, as they’d set up quite compact early on for a reason, knowing what the US can do when things open up. 

Canada stuns US with equalizer: 

But despite that, Canada just did all that it could really do at that point, and that was to put their head down and get to work, trying to find any sort of crack in the US armour that they could exploit. 

Would it pay off? No one knew, but it certainly wasn’t looking great for Canada, whose hopes of rescuing something out of this game started to look like they were on life support. 

So with that, it was a massive surprise to then see Canada then find a breakthrough in the 62nd minute, as a bit of magic allowed them to crawl right back into the game. 

On what looked like a relatively harmless attacking move, Canada’s Sam Adekugbe then managed to find Davies in behind with a lovely through ball, breaking the rigid US defensive block. 

With a bit of space in front of him, Davies then did some Davies things, dragging over multiple American defenders to try and stop him as he steamrolled into the box. 

By doing that, though, they forgot about the wrong player, and that was Larin, who was left wide-open at the edge of the 6-yard box, and Davies did well to find him with a simple cut-back, one that Larin calmly finished to tie the game up. 

And with that, Larin continued his bonkers hot streak, giving him his 12th goal in 11 games for Canada this year, and his 9th in CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, putting him alone atop the top scoring charts in the competition. 

“That was Cyle just being Cyle,” Adekugbe said. “I think his performances this year speak for themselves, not just in club football, but for the National Team, as well.”

As for Davies, it was a beautiful assist to add to give him his 6th helper for Canada in 2021, and 10th overall goal contribution in 8 games this year. 

After 3 consecutive games where he was held off the scoresheet, he made sure to remind folks why he’s the best player in CONCACAF, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for his team. 

“The guy’s special,” Herdman said of Davies. “I just get the chance to work with him, he’s a special individual.”

And it’s that mindset to keep at it that was so impressive about this tally.

Desperately needing a goal to save this game, Canada’s 2 best players this year came up big at the perfect moment for their country, giving them the fuel that they needed to get more out of a game that looked like it might just slip away from them. 

“We just stuck to our game plan,” Adekugbe continued. “We knew what our focus was during the game, yes, it was disappointing to concede the goal but there was a lot of time left on the clock, and we knew that if we stayed mentally strong, we’d have chances for ourselves.”

Larin looks on after scoring the equalizer (Canada Soccer/Frederick Breedon)

Sam Adekugbe’s colossal night: 

While Larin and Davies stole the plaudits on the goal, as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t happen without the play of Adekugbe, but to be fair to the Canadian left back, that was also probably true for the result as a whole, as he was fantastic in this one, even if he didn’t get the plaudits for it. 

Slotting in as a wing back in a formation that blended between a 5-4-1 and a 3-4-3, Adekugbe was locked in right from the starting whistle, putting up a massive performance on both sides of the ball. 

From his contributions offensively, which was highlighted by his secondary assist, to his work defensively, including some big interventions right in the final 5 minutes, he hardly set a foot wrong in this game. 

A forgotten name in this Canadian set-up at times, the 26-year-old showed why he has a very big role to play for this team, as his two-way game is fantastic. 

Having recently made a move to Turkish side Hatayspor after a few good seasons with Norway’s Valerenga, he hasn’t been necessarily getting the same attention as some of his Canadian teammates have been getting these past few years, but that’s not due to his play, as he’s been quietly growing leaps and bounds as of late. 

And that was on full display in this game. 

Adekugbe has always had the offensive talent – that’s been clear ever since he was a youngster back in the Vancouver Whitecaps system. 

But where he’s really taken a huge step forward has been in his defensive game, as he’s truly grown into a reliable 1v1 defender, one that relishes any sort of matchup. 

Because of that, it’s going to be hard to leave him out of the lineup going forward, especially if he keeps playing as he did versus the US. 

He’s just the kind of player that Canada needs more of at the back, so don’t be surprised if Herdman runs him out now again versus El Salvador, as he more than deserves to be in the starting lineup for that game once again. 

Tactics: 

Otherwise, it was a much cleaner game tactically for Canada, especially after what we saw from them versus Honduras, where they were out-witted in the first half, forcing them to play catch up. 

Instead, in this one, they avoided making the same mistake that they’ve made in the last 2 times they played in the US, and that was not to come out too gung-ho, as they instead sat back and tried to frustrate the Americans. 

“We were tactically sound,” Adekugbe said. “We knew what our game plan was coming into the match, and I think we executed it well.”

Stationed in a 3-4-2-1, Canada would shift into a 5-4-1 whenever the US got the ball, sitting nice and compact with their bank of 5 and 4, leaving the lone striker, Larin, to press high up the pitch. 

Thanks to that, Canada were able to frustrate the US in the middle of the park, which is their bread and butter, forcing them to play in wide areas, areas they’re a lot less comfortable in. 

And considering that other than the Aaronson goal and Pulisic post, the US did nothing from those areas, Canada was smart in their assessment to leave their opponents that space, showing their good game-planning. 

So although the US battered Canada in the possession battle to the tune of 72% to 28%, Canada didn’t feel like they were under the cosh defensively, as they did a lot of great work closing things down early. 

“We looked at what the US threats were heading into this game,” Herdman said. “And we changed the rhythm of this game, there were a few little things that we did to make sure that the US never got comfortable against our 5-4-1, so I thought the boys executed that very well.”

“It was tough to break down,” Berhalter admitted. “We need faster ball movement, everyone could see from the outside that we took way too long on the ball, and that allowed Canada to shift.”

On offence, things were less rosy, as Canada didn’t control the game as much as they could’ve in the middle of the park, which was the trade-off of playing the 3-4-2-1. 

They were dangerous down the flanks, first through Davies and Laryea in the first half, before second half substitute Tajon Buchanan did the same in the 2nd stanza, but they were left wanting more from the middle, which is usually a strong area of their game. 

Instead, much like in the Honduras game, they just didn’t play through the middle of the park enough, and when they did, they were sloppy and didn’t play with the sort of oomph and class that they sometimes have in that area of the park. 

And that’s a bit of a worry. In their last 4 games, which have come vs Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras and now Mexico, in order, they’ve arguably only controlled the midfield once, and that was in the Costa Rica game, which happens to be the last time they’ve scored 2 goals in a match, as well as keep a clean sheet. 

Considering that their inability to keep a clean sheet in the 3 games they’ve played since has mostly come through tough individual errors, as they’ve actually been pretty good defensively, that latter stat doesn’t matter, but for a team that has gone 3 straight games with just 1 goal, the former stat is a bit more of a worry. 

If they’re to start winning games, scoring 2+ goals a game would go a long way towards doing that, especially given that their defence has allowed more than 1 goal just once in 13 games this year, so if that means controlling the midfield more, they have to prioritize that part of their game going forward. 

On a team with Davies, Larin, Buchanan, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan David, among others, Canada needs to find a bit more offence right now, and it looks like the way to unlocking those players is by starting to win the midfield battle again. 

Canada needs to turn to their midfielers, such as Mark Anthony Kaye (pictured #14), more going forward (Canada Soccer/Frederick Breedon)

In The Mixer:

Lastly, here are some other things that stood out from this one. 

  • Larin is now 2 goals away from tying Dwayne De Rosario as all-time Canadian Men’s National Team goalscorer. At this rate, you’d back him tying it by the end of the week, but even if he doesn’t, he seems destined to at least get it done by the end of the year.
  • With his assist, Davies made sure that through 25 games with Canada, he’s yet to go more than 3 games without a goal contribution. That’s pretty impressive.
  • On the other hand, keep an eye out on Jonathan David. After scoring 15 goals in his first 14 games for Canada, only failing to score in 5 of those games, he’s now gone 4 straight without breaching the back of the net, his longest such drought with the team. Not only that, he’s not looked the same cool and confident David that earned him the nickname ‘Iceman’. Look for him to change that by busting the slump versus El Salvador.
  • Someone check in on Stephen Eustaquio, who went 90 minutes for Canada for the 8th time in 2021. Dating back to the start of the 2020/2021 season, he’s now played in 54 out of a possible 59 games for club and country in the past 14 months, missing just 5 games, 3 of those due to suspension. Despite barely having a summer off, he’s continued to roll this year, playing at a high level despite the big minute load. Not bad for someone who missed a year of playing in 2019 with a major knee injury.
  • After leaving the game with a knock, looks like Davies just had a small niggle and a bit of a cramp, according to Herdman. Looks like he’ll be a candidate to feature versus El Salvador, after fears he might not.
  • Credit to Canada for tapping into the wells of CONCACAF and killing the clock quite nicely at the end. In one swoop, they frustrated the Americans and helped themselves pick up a point. They didn’t do enough of that before.

Looking Forward:

So now, Canada head back to Toronto where they’ll get set to face El Salvador on Wednesday at BMO Field, in a massive game for them. 

If they can win then, based on how the other results are looking, they’ll put themselves in a nice position ahead of the October window, where some tough games await, including Jamaica and Mexico away, and hosting an upstart Panama side at BMO Field. 

Obviously, if they drop points, it’ll dampen the optimism a bit ahead of then, so they’ll need to go out with a big push to ensure they do what it takes to win, but after this result, they’ll like their chances. 

At the very least, though, with this being a marathon, not a sprint, they’ll look to continue to grow in how they’ve played, finding the juice for their most complete performance yet, which if all goes right, should be more than enough to grab all 3 points on Wednesday. 

“(Before), we’d take this point,” Adekugbe said. “But that’s not the mentality of this group, the mentality is to take 3 points, and there were chances for both teams to do that, and we thought we had the better of those chances.”

Up Next: Canada vs El Salvador, Wednesday, September 8th, 2021, 16:30 PDT, 19:30 EDT (BMO Field, Toronto)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/Frederick Breedon

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